Setting the Pace

Every Israeli politician knew it was the sort of hypothetical question you sidestep. But Ehud Barak fell for it: "If you were born a Palestinian, would you have joined a terrorist organization?" inquired Gideon Levy of Israel's Channel 3 TV back in March of 1998. When the newly ordained Labor leader answered affirmatively, his party colleagues sighed, the Israeli right gasped, and Hamas youth everywhere felt absolved of their lawlessness. Obviously, the ex-general needed some polishing.

The book on Barak, the man chosen to lead Israel through the momentous days ahead, is that as a military leader, he could devise and execute plans with daring and precision. He is also an intellectual, and the combination is forecasted by many to serve him well in his lofty political capacity. With patience and experience, the refinements will come. But the poor execution of a preconceived strategy, or lack of one to begin with, exhibited in the just-completed coalition process is not a good sign. Israel can ill afford the luxury of making similar mistakes in the approaching negotiations with her Arab adversaries.

As some have noted, Barak has managed a few material achievements in his short political career. He brought together a party shaken by the death of Yitzhak Rabin and the defeat of Shimon Peres. He then disposed of the media-savvy Binyamin Netanyahu and several other contenders along the way.

So it is well worth examining Barak's apparent aims as Prime Minister, as outlined recently by close associates. These goals involve using a broad government to: mend the rifts in society; achieve progress in the economic and social-welfare spheres; and move the peace process forward "more slowly than the Rabin-Peres government, but faster than Netanyahu."

As this latter line of thinking goes, Barak's big win has broken the pattern, set by the past two prime ministers, of governing with the support of only half the country. Fifty percent of the country was despondent as Rabin moved too quickly under Oslo, while the other half then feared Netanyahu was moving too slow. Barak wants to find a happy medium between the two, and is claiming this is the mandate handed to him by a solid majority of the people.

Post-election surveys indicate that Barak's surprising margin of victory was not necessarily a mandate for rapid concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians. Both a Gallup poll and the "Peace Index" survey by Tel Aviv University found that the majority of the public voted with unity and economic improvements in mind, rather than the advancement of the peace process. Over 70% of the Gallup respondents opposed carrying out the interim withdrawals of Wye before final-status talks begin, a negotiating maneuver Barak always has favored. And at least 65% supported Barak's stated "red lines" regarding the Jordan Valley and settlements. The new Knesset reflects this alignment of popular opinion, especially on the settlements.

This Barak must reconcile with Palestinian demands, where the remaining Wye withdrawals and a settlement freeze are the least they expect before joining him at the table for final-status talks. US President Bill Clinton expects much the same, but will give Barak a lot more time and leeway than his predecessor to search for solutions. Besides, the Clinton Administration has been credited with helping put Barak in office, by deftly employing measures to discredit Netanyahu throughout the recent five-month campaign. Sensitive to such charges of interference, planned visits to Israel by both State Department envoy Dennis Ross and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, an outspoken proponent of Palestinian statehood, were cancelled recently so as not to complicate Barak's efforts to form a coalition.

SOON IT WIIL BE Barak paying a visit to Washington to consult with Clinton about reviving negotiations with the Palestinians, as well as charting a course for a more comprehensive peace that includes Syria and Lebanon. He has indicated he hopes to pursue these channels simultaneously, and is prepared to make "painful decisions." Undoubtedly, these are the "encouraging statements of the Israeli prime minister-elect" so welcomed in the G-8 statement issued at the Cologne summit in June.

But Barak also has pledged to subject any final settlement negotiated with the Palestinians to a national referendum. The Israeli public has learned that "land for peace" is a slippery slope, as any step forward (or backward - to be more precise) creates perilous momentum exploited even by supposed allies. The country simply cannot absorb but so many withdrawals… so many amputations. Let's hope it is they who truly get the chance to decide the pace of this painful surgical process.

David R. Parsons

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